Monday, October 22, 2007

'The Owl Service' It Is

Thanks so much for your comments. 'The Owl Service' it is. I think it's a wonderfully atmospheric book, so I do hope you all enjoy it. It should also be easy to get hold of. If I understand the rules aright, discussion begins on November 30th. I hope to see you all then.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Which Shall It Be?

Hello, I'm a very new member of the Slaves and so feel very privileged to be asked to take part in the choosing of the next book. I've spent the last far too many years of my life working with books for children, teens and young adults and as I think the best of these are often underrated I thought I would suggest five that are at the top end of the age range as possible reads for discussion starting November 30th. One of the big practical problems with this area of literature is that stuff goes out of print very quickly, but as far as I can see all of my suggestions are still available on both sides of the Atlantic. I don't know if there are any Slaves elsewhere, but if so, then I think The Book Depository will send abroad free.

So, to the books, in alphabetical order by author.

'Bloodtide' by Melvin Burgess.

Burgess is never less than controversial. The book that preceded this one, 'Junk' won the Carnegie Award, but also had librarians and teachers all over the country screaming blue murder about books that encouraged children to experiment with drugs, sex and goodness knows what else. 'Bloodtide' is set in a future riven by war and genetic experimentation. The great cities of the world are ruled over by family groups that echo the Mafia of earlier days. Outside of the cities the land is populated by those who have come off worse in the genetic experiments. In London one family tries to bind others to them by means of a political marriage. The results are disastrous. Burgess uses motifs from the Norse myths to encourage the reader to explore the dangers of current political and scientific practice.

"Postcards From No Man's Land' by Aidan Chambers.

Chambers is a fascinating man. Starting out as an Anglican Monk, he came out of the church to devote himself to teaching and encouraging reading. This novel, which won the Carnegie, is the fifth in a sequence intended to explore teenage life in the late twentieth/early twenty-first centuries. You don't need to have read the others, however. The only link is his concern for the issues that young men and women face in current society. "Postcards' tells two stories, that of a seventeen year old English boy visiting Holland at the time of the celebration of the anniversary of Arnhem and that of his grandfather fighting in that same battle fifty years earlier. At the same time it also uses the setting of Amsterdam to explore issues to do with drugs, sexuality and euthanasia.

'After The First Death' by Robert Cormier.

Cormier's death two or three years ago was a massive loss for quality children's literature and this is one of his books that I find still speaks to my students nearly thirty years after it was first published. A bus full of children is held hostage by terrorists just outside a small American town. The children's lives are threatened if the terrorists don't get what they want. The situation is explored from three points of view, that of one of the terrorists, of Kate, the bus-driver and of Ben, the son of a General, who is forced to act as a go-between. Too many modern day echoes to ever be a comfortable read.

'The Owl Service' by Alan Garner

'The Owl Service' is even older. It won the Carnegie Award in 1967 and yet it also still has things to say to a modern audience. Set in the Welsh valleys it uses a tale from Welsh Myth as the basis for an exploration into class and cultural differences that remain the same whatever generation they appear in. Three teenagers, Alison, Roger and Gwyn find themselves forced to relive the sequence of events that take place in the myth and in the course of the action discover truths about their backgrounds and heritage that are uncomfortable and ultimately, dangerous.

'Just In Case' by Meg Rosoff.

This year's winner of the Carnegie. I have to say that I wasn't one of those who went wild over Rosoff's first novel, 'How I Live Now', but I loved 'Just In Case'. David Case is a teenager who feels that fate really has it in for him. Nothing unusual there then. But David decides to try and trick fate by changing his name and his personna. He becomes Justin Case, changes his image, his way of living and challenges fate to do its worst. It can be very funny but also very bittersweet. There are times when you really want to shake David/Justin out of his self-obsessiveness but you know it wouldn't do any good whatsoever.

So, there you are; my five suggestions.

If you leave your comments and votes then I will count them all up and post again next week to let you know what the selection is. I hope there is something here that you can enjoy.

Friday, October 12, 2007

What's Up Next?

With thanks to the bloggers who wrote so eloquently on the Makine - it was a good call from the Slaves and provoked some wonderful readings.

Just to let you know that the next book for discussion will be picked by Ann from Patternings. Look out for a shortlist early next week.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

The Woman Who Waited

51k5gwwbcgl_aa240_ I said yesterday that I'd managed to get my timings all wrong over the last few days and one of the consequences is that I've only just completed the current Slaves of Golconda book, Andrei Makine's The Woman Who Waited. This is the first book by Makine that I've read and I was lured into a sense of false security by the slimness of the volume. I thought I was going to be able to read it over an evening, not allowing for the fact the the sheer beauty of the writing and the depth of intensity in the emotions raised would have me reading passages over and over again simply to enjoy the sound of the music contained in them or to ponder the layers of meaning they evoked.

The book tells of the narrator's sojourn in a small Russian village and his encounter there with Vera, a woman twenty years older than him. Like so many of the village woman the man to whom Vera is committed has not returned after World War II, but in Vera's case there has been no definite news of what happened to him; she has become 'the woman who waited'.

Initially, the narrator is scathing in his assessment of the life that Vera leads, teaching children not her own and tending the needs of those women now too old to look after their more physically strenuous wants. He stereotypes her as a woman that life has passed by and seems to see her as someone who has given up on those activities that for him typify living, activities centred, for the most part, round one's own personal desires and satisfaction. However, gradually the reader, if not necessarily narrator himself, comes to see that it is Vera who has the deep and complex understanding of what being alive is all about while the narrator is stunted by his own selfish and self-centred perspective. If he can't change his awareness of what is important in life he is the one who will live, and eventually die, unfulfilled. Embedded in the narrative is a description of a mirror that has cracked.

Its upper portion reflects the forest treetops and the sky. The face of anyone looking into it is thrust up towards the clouds. The lower part reflects the rutted road, the feet of people walking past and, if you glance sideways, the line of the lake, now blue, now dark.

The mirror, for me, became the controlling image that guided my reading. Vera's life might be said to have cracked and the narrator is clearly seeing what remains as the rutted road, but there is the other view, the view that thrusts you up towards the clouds. For whatever Vera's life might lack it is full of love and of commitment. And it is commitment to others that the narrator cannot embrace. Indeed, the moment he thinks that someone might have a call on him he is panic stricken and can think only of escaping. For a moment the narrative shifts into present tense, a tense that isolates in the immediate and admits of no connection with what has gone before or what might yet be to come. Vera lives and loves in a community that needs her while he is left alone.

The blurb on the jacket tells me that Makine has a list of publications about which I knew nothing, including Le Testament Francais, which won the Prix Goncourt and the Prix Medicis. This has to be my next purchase, I think, because I certainly want to read more by this remarkable author.

Cross posted at

Monday, October 01, 2007

The Woman Who Waited

In this remote corner of the Russian North, I had expected to discover a microcosm of the Soviet age, a caricature of that simultaneously messianic and stagnant time. But time was completely absent from these villages, which seemed as if they were living on after the disappearance of the regime, after the collapse of the empire. What I was passing through was, in effect, a kind of premonition of the future. All trace of history had been eradicated. What remained were the gilded slivers of the willow leaves on the dark surface of the lake, the first snows that generally came at night, the silence of the White Sea, looming beyond the forests. What remained was this woman in a long military greatcoat, following the shoreline, stopping at the mailbox where the roads met. What remained was the essence of things.

In the mid-seventies, after his girlfriend begins sleeping with other dissidents at parties and his friend leaves Leningrad for a new life outside the Iron Curtain, the narrator of The Woman Who Waited escapes to the Archangel provinces. Intending to write an anti-Soviet satire on the side while getting paid to research the folkways of the region, he instead finds himself writing about Vera, a woman old enough to be his mother yet beautiful enough, mysterious enough, to engage him totally.

Vera is an icon in the village--she tends to the elderly and dying, she buries the dead, she teaches what youth there are, she commands the respect of the most lecherous among them because she is waiting, waiting for her Boris who left when she was 16 to fight the German invasion, and who, after 30 years, has yet to return, yet to be declared definitively dead. Although younger than most women in Mirnoe, hers was a shared plight--most of the men never returned, leaving their widows and mothers to live and then die alone.

Acknowledging that he'd be better off researching folkways in a library, that there is nothing in the village to be satirical about, the narrator postpones his departure while he spies upon Vera and integrates himself into her daily life. As he learns more about her and her reasons for waiting, for returning to the village after eight years in Leningrad in the sixties pursuing a doctorate in linguistics, the narrator continually adjusts his earlier attempts to "size up" this woman whose life he'd previously regarded as "woefully simple."

Eventually the narrator and Vera sleep together. His joy at having bedded such a woman turns to dread and fear almost immediately: She'll depend on him! He'll never get rid of her! He prepares to leave the village without telling Vera good-bye. . . but Vera is at her boat same as any morning and she drops the narrator and his suitcase on the far side of the lake to make it easier for him to catch the train. She is calm and composed, defying all the narrator's expectations. While he has earlier stated he'd rather "deal with a verbal construct than a living person" once her mystery "has been tamed," her secret "has been decoded," the narrator is clearly leaving before he's reached that point. Anything he tells us about Vera ultimately tells us more about him than it does her.

Andrei Makine writes clean, spare prose. The gorgeous descriptions of the forests surrounding the abandoned villages and the lake's nocturnal beauty were enough to make me realize that given the chance I'd've chosen to live there instead of back in Leningrad among the hypocrisy and artificiality of the times.

Something I'd like to pay closer attention to on a reread: the narrator frequently mentions the artificiality of those he associates with. They play to the gallery, acting out caricatures; they force gaity; they act out and are upstaged; they "jot down a few fibs about the gnomes in their forests." I don't recall that Vera is ever presented as behaving inauthentically until the night she and the narrator sleep together, when play-acting suddenly comes to the fore.

Many thanks to Litlove for recommending this book. Crossposted at pages turned.